Renegotiating the social contract – building back better (second in a series)

The pandemic has revealed the need to renegotiate the social contract that exists between civil society and government. For example, we have a long term care system that can’t keep people alive; a welfare system that keeps people poor; and a disability system that keeps people from being included.

The social contract is a political expression of society’s shared values. It identifies the role citizens want their government to play in creating a fairer, safer, more just, equitable, accessible and inclusive society. An early example is the commitment at Confederation to free public education despite Canada being in debt, without an army and worried about American military expansion. Other examples include universal health care and the income support system.

Although government plays a critical role in redistributing resources, investing in social innovation, setting standards and removing barriers to genuine inclusion the social contract was never meant to give it sole responsibility for levelling the playing field. Nor can it. For example governments can legislate to make buildings physically accessible. However creating a welcoming atmosphere once people are inside depends on the mindset and attitudes of those who work, shop, learn and play there.

The social contract is a balancing act. Too much government intervention undermines natural caring and increases dependency on paid, professional intervention. Too little and individuals, families and communities are left on their own to deal with dangerous attitudes, changing economic realities and life circumstances that are not their fault and beyond their control.

The social contract isn’t one document. It’s a combination of laws, policies and regulations scattered over time among various departments at multiple levels of government. It has grown higgledy-piggledy with one-off reforms. It’s no longer rational or coordinated and often acts at cross purposes. It  hasn’t kept pace with changing technology, the growth of artificial intelligence, the concentration of wealth and the climate crisis. And it remains slow to respond to the needs of excluded groups of people.

It’s time for a major overhaul.

Renegotiating the social contract  starts with an exercise of the imagination. The imaginative question isn’t, ‘What needs fixing?’ but ‘What kind of caring society do we want?’

The answer will involve:

  • Recognizing the natural ingenuity and caring of individuals, families, neighbours and community
  • Privileging the solutions of those whose lives are negatively impacted by social injustice and economic inequality
  • Getting rid of false assumptions that perpetuate exclusion, injustice and inequity
  • Prioritizing public values of solidarity, compassion and fairness over private sector market values
  • Taking stock of the gaps, overlaps, and competition among existing programs
  • Re-purposing government institutions to serve as a bridge between formal and community supports
  • Articulating a new relationship between civil society and government that goes well beyond volunteerism and charity.

Renegotiating the social contract will take a mighty collective effort by citizens in an equal partnership with government. In other words not the usual government-led advisory process but a combination of citizen assemblies, reference panels, civic lotteries , e-democracy and other forms of deliberative democracy.

The pandemic has revealed that a caring society is a do-it-together, not a do-it yourself, project. And that government and civil society in partnership makes it so.

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